Intermittent social distancing may be needed through 2022 to manage COVID-19

On-and-off periods of social distancing will likely be needed into 2022 to ensure that hospitals have enough capacity for future COVID-19 patients in need of critical care, according to a new modeling study from researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The research, published April 14, 2020 in the journal Science, predicted several scenarios for how the coronavirus might spread over the next five years, taking into account factors such as whether or not the virus will exhibit seasonality, whether people who are infected go on to develop short-term or long-term immunity, and whether people would get any cross-protective immunity from having been infected with other types of coronaviruses that cause common colds.

Even if one 8- to 12-week period of social distancing is successful in “flattening the curve”—keeping the infection rate low enough so that hospitals aren’t overwhelmed—many people will remain susceptible to COVID-19, said Yonatan Grad, assistant professor of immunology and  co-senior author of the study, in an April 15, 2020 WBUR interview. In the absence of other interventions, there could be a resurgence of COVID-19 among this susceptible group, which would require further intermittent periods of social distancing until enough of the population develops immunity, either through becoming infected or through a vaccine.

Social distancing restrictions could be eased under various scenarios, according to the authors—if COVID-19 treatments become available, if hospitals can increase their intensive care bed capacity, if there’s aggressive contact tracing and quarantine, or if a vaccine is developed.

“I think social distancing interventions of some sort are going to have to continue, hopefully lightened and in conjunction with other interventions,” said Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics and co-senior author of the study, in an April 14 article in STAT.

The authors wrote that they’re aware of the severe economic, social, and educational consequences of social distancing. They said their goal is not to advocate a particular policy but to note “the potentially catastrophic burden on the healthcare system that is predicted if distancing is poorly effective and/or not sustained for long enough.”

Other Harvard Chan School authors of the study included lead author Stephen Kissler, Christine Tedijanto, and Edward Goldstein.

Read the study: Projecting the transmission dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 through the postpandemic period

Listen to the WBUR story: Harvard Researchers: Social Distancing May Intermittently Last Into 2022

Read the STAT article: Some social distancing may be needed into 2022 to keep coronavirus in check, new study says